Making a knife is primal - it's probably the first tool Adam used.
I love making knives because I get to use a variety of materials (steel, horn, wood, composites etc) and I use multiple tools to transform the raw materials into a thing of function and beauty. I have complete and full control over the design, and I take immense satisfaction from using something I've made, or giving it away as a gift.
Today I'm going to step you through making a damascus forged knife. I'll be using an unlikely source of steel, and my design will incorporate the challenging step of including an integral bolster...that is, the transition area between blade and handle will be forged into place.
This forged knife will have a hidden tang with a stag antler for the handle - I'll try and leave this antler in as natural a state as I can.
Step 1: Safety First People! Safety First...
Keep yourself safe. We're going to be cutting, welding, heating, drilling, grinding, etching...and ideally none of that to ourselves.
In all of these activities be alert to what you're doing, and keep an eye on your equipment and your surroundings.
Remove trip hazards (I nearly went head-over-kite when tripping up on an extension lead), and keep children clear of danger. If you're doing something and that little red light in the back of your head starts flashing...listen to it and stop what you're doing! It's telling you you're on the edge of safety. No task is worth an injury. However, sometimes a small cut or burn is just going to happen so keep a medical kit handy.
- boots (preferably steel toe)
- eye protection
- hearing protection
- leather apron
- gloves (on occasion...I'll explain more shortly)
- long pants are a good idea to keep hot sparks or slag from flying into your shoes (yes, I've had that)
- hat/cap to keep long hair out of harms way, and also to deflect sparks from landing on your neck (yes, I've had that)
More on Gloves. Great when you're handling hot material but a big no-no when grinding (or near any spinning thing). The first reason is you don't want a glove to be caught in a wheel or machine dragging your hand into it. Secondly, it's useful to feel the heat through the blade as you grind it so you avoid over heating it and thereby ruining the hardness you've achieved.
Having said all of this, we're going to have fun so don't be put off by the above...rather understand the risks and act appropriately.
Step 2: Tools and Equipment
Raw material I used in this knife
- Chain from a car transmission
- stag antler
- liner material
- copper washers
Tools you'll need:
- metal cut-off saw
- forge capable of reaching forge-welding heat
- flux (anhydrous borax)
- hydraulic press
- drill press
- belt grinder
Step 3: Cutting the Chain
Use a metal cut-off saw to cut the chain into 5-link lengths...I've stacked 5 lengths for a total of 25 links. Using a mig welder, spot weld the links so they don't move around, then weld a piece of rebar onto the chain. This is your handle.
Step 4: Into the Forge
Light the forge then place the billet into it. When the billet has gained some color sprinkle anhydrous borax onto it...borax will help the steel weld together by fighting off oxidization and also acts to drive out impurities from the billet. Place back in the forge.
Step 5: Hydraulic Press
When the billet has heated through (this will be around 900-1000C) it's time to begin forge welding. I apply light pressure to both sides of the billet, returning it to the forge frequently so it remains hot. Forge it hot to reduce the risk of faults in the welding. Continue heating and pressing until the chain has formed into a solid billet.
Step 6: Cleaning Up
Remove the billet from the forge and grind off the spot welds. I don't want to forge these into the billet as it will introduce mild steel to the knife that will etch as unpleasant gray spots in the finished blade.
Continue heating and pressing the billet.
Step 7: Taking Shape and Drawing Out
The billet has now welded and I'm beginning to draw it out in length.
Step 8: Hammering
It wouldn't be right to make a knife without using the hammer and anvil at least some of the time.
Begin shaping the end of the billet into what will become the knife blade.
Step 9: Disc Grinding
I'm removing some raggedy pieces of steel from the edges of the billet so as not to inadvertently forge these into the billet which could introduce pits or inclusions...not good.
Great shot of my safety boots, and an even greater shot of sparks...what's not to love about knife making!
Step 10: Cutting the Billet
I'm cutting the blade from the billet...this small portion will become the knife, and I'll return to the rest of the billet at a later date to make more knives.
I've attached a handle and placed back in the forge. When the billet is hot I'm using a combination of press and hammer/anvil to shape the tang, integral bolster.
Step 11: Final Shaping
Using a drawing hammer, stretch out the billet. I've then placed a straightening die in the press and applied pressure to the billet...this realigns the blade and tang.
Step 12: Annealing and Normalizing Then to the Grinder
One final heat and then I leave the billet to cool at a slow rate...this helps to relieve stress from the billet and leaves it in an annealed (unhardened) state...easier to grind and drill.
When the billet has cooled to room temperature I begin to rough grind with a 50 grit belt to create the profile and flatten the blade.
Step 13: Taking Shape
I'm working over the entire blade...the edge profile, sides, bolster and tang. The blade gets hot so constant dipping in water is necessary.
Step 14: Heat Treat
Using my smaller heat treat forge, I heat the blade until it is hot enough to harden. When the steel is non-magnetic it's ready to quench in oil. Keep a magnet nearby, but not on the side of the forge...I learned the hard way why this is a bad idea...no gloves on at the time...it was hot!
Step 15: Quench - Flaming Good Stuff
I've heated up some old junk steel and placed in the oil to warm it up a little, then it's time to quench the blade. Taking it immediately from the forge I quickly quench the blade in the oil, keeping it still until the flames have ceased. I'm edge quenching only, which should leave the spine of the blade a little less hard...adding toughness to the finished blade.
Step 16: Tempering
My blade is now hardened but it is as hard as glass...and equally brittle. I need to take some of this hardness out by tempering in an oven for 2 hours at 200C.
Step 17: Establish the Bevels, Beryl
Once the blade has been tempered, return to the belt grinder and continue to improve the overall shape. I've now begun to establish the bevels and work these until I get the desired shape. I continue through increasing finer belt grits, removing scratches from each previous pass:
- 50 grit - beginning and roughing out
- 80 grit
- 120 grit
- 240 grit
- 320 grit
- 600 grit - finishing
This blade is now finished. It won't be polished or buffed beyond this point...buffing would 'smear' the surface of the steel which wouldn't allow it to etch well.
Pro Tip: Constantly dip the blade in water to keep it cool. If you over-heat the blade you can ruin the hardness and you're back to square one. Not great when the blade is thin and can easily warp in the forge.
Step 18: Preparing the Antler
Select the portion of antler to fit the bolster, then drill the center of the antler to snugly accommodate the tang.
Step 19: Assembling
Assemble the parts and test-fit them together, making minor adjustments so they fit snugly.
As an added feature, I have cut a section of antler so as to introduce a further point of interest...sandwiching this section between copper and red liner.
Step 20: Preparing Epoxy
Mix equal parts of epoxy.
Step 21: Start to Glue Up
Load epoxy into the drilled hole, the begin to layer up the components, using liberal (but not messy) amounts of epoxy. Clean up excess epoxy as you go.
Check out my nifty holding device.
Step 22: Layer Cake
Stack the pieces then push firmly together. Follow the manufacturers epoxy curing directions.
Step 23: 24 Hours Later...
The epoxy is now set. Begin to clean up the handle on the belt grinder taking care not to scuff the finished blade (it is a good idea to wrap the blade with tape and cardboard to protect it).
Step 24: Finishing With Fine Grit Belt
Slack belt grinding with 600 grit belt. This will soften hard edges and allow curves to be established. I generally run the grinder at a slower speed during this phase. I'm constantly running my fingers over the blade and handle, removing high spots as I find them...another good reason not to wear gloves.
Step 25: Optional Step - Preparing the Makers Mark
Clean the surface of the blade with acetone then attach the stencil with tape. The wand of the etch machine is moistened with etchant solution then applied to the stencil until the etch has taken…I check a couple of times during this process until I know it’s complete.
Remove the stencil and clean the area with a neutralizing agent.
Step 26: Preparing to Etch the Blade
At this stage, the Damascus layers are still hidden beneath the shiny surface of the blade. It requires an etch in a light acid to highlight the two metals, thus exposing the pattern.
Wash the blade in acetone, then submerge the blade in ferric chloride for 60 seconds, repeating until the etch has taken. When I’m happy with the level of contrast I wash the blade under clean water then submerge in trisodium phosphate (TSP) to neutralize the acid.
Now I can finally see how the chain has become a blade. The high shine areas are the pins that hold the chain links together…spectacular how they transform under heat and pressure.
Step 27: Oiling the Handle and Blade
I use a mix 70/30 mix of beeswax and mineral oil to coat the entire knife. This will help keep the blade protected and brings a luster to the antler.
ProTip: Make your own wood treatment. Melt the beeswax in a pot then slowly add the food-safe mineral oil. Stir until mixed then pour into a jar or container. The treatment will remain solid but soft and is perfect for keeping your knife handles looking great, as well as wooden spoons, chopping boards, clogs...
Step 28: Knife Is Finished
You now have a unique, one of a kind damascus knife. You've recycled high-carbon steel and turned it into a thing of beauty.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this instructable. There are many steps in the process but I hope to encourage you to have a go at making your own knife.
For a quick look at the process to build this knife, check out this montage Forging a Knife from Chain
I have knives available for sale from time to time - please check out http://minnearknives.co.nz
Final thoughts…you can get by with less equipment so don’t be put off if you don’t have a some of these tools…you’ll be surprised how far you can get by sticking with the basics. It may mean more beating with a hammer and anvil but I want to encourage you to have a go…you can do it!